Sunday, May 22, 2011

7 weeks

"I think," Tehanu said in her soft, strange voice, "that I when I die, I can breathe back the breath that made me live. I can give back to the world all that I didn't do. All that I might have been and couldn't be. All the choices I didn't make. All the things I lost and spent and wasted. I can give them back to the world. To the lives that haven't been lived yet. That will be my gift back to the world that gave me the life I did live, the love I lived, the breath I breathed." (Ursula K. Le Guin, The Other Wind)

How much any person is able to do in 7 weeks? To see the results of the exercising, one needs at least 8 weeks. Oh yes, a spring onion will be edible by that time, and some radish as well. One can dye the hair again in this time twice. Apart from that? No possibility of learning language (no, my dear, being able to say “I wuv you! Marry me XX  sshi!! is not a language ability), no possibility of building a house. No saving the world from war and poverty. No cure for Alzheimer.
7 weeks is really not that much.
So imagine you are given 7 weeks of life. What would you do? Rob a bakery and steal all meringues… no, wait, go on some rampage and make all those who bullied you in school pay for this? Have tons of uncontrollable sex with anyone and anywhere? How about preparing everyone for your leave? You expect everyone to shed hectoliters of tears and wailing in pain. But guess what? What if some people just want you dead?

49 Days started off with a sickeningly sweet scene of the engagement party. In the first 30 minutes all characters were shown, bright and naïve to the level of mentally handicapped Jihyeon, her fiancé, gentlemanly and polite Minho, her friends – Seowu and Injeong, and Han Kang, for whom the main heroine was harboring some unpleasant memories. And then, when – seemingly – her life couldn’t get any more fairy-taled, she got into the accident. At first we didn’t get to know the reason for her accident, but with time all facts came to the surface. This is how this drama started.
Truth be told, I was anticipating this because of Jeong Ilwu, whom I liked instantly while watching Return of Iljimae. Also, the second factor was the topic. 49 days is actually a true belief. According to the various schools of Buddhism, 49 being the estimated time it takes for the spirit to be reborn again into a new life. Some spirits are reborn 3 days, 21 days, 49 days or 100 days after death, and in some cases even 7 years[1]

But here’s the problem. The concept of the soul that was presented here, is not of Buddhist provenience. There is the concept of “mind”, and it’s more like the conscience is being moved to another incarnation (transgression), but not a soul per se. The writers made some huge mistakes with the overall rules of it, but I guess it’s just a topic for purists to pin down every error.
It is believed that spirit is invisible. As an invisible being, it casts no shadow. It doesn’t afflict the shape of the bed, chair etc. Jihyeon had a shadow and she left the marks of her body on the bed. I can deal with that, I know I may just point out some useless things, but just to clear things out – my research is on ghosts and demons, so I don’t take my statements from wiki or website on Harry Potter.
Great motif with weakening of the spirit – at first she felt no tiredness, and was full of energy, but with time, her strength started to vanish. This is actually very common disposition of ghosts in many beliefs. And this is why the offerings are so important. In ancient Egypt, the dead was equipped with food and all utensils so he/she would not lose the strength. This is why in Korea grains of rice are put into the mouth of a dead person. To endure the journey through the netherworld. Since Jihyeon lived, she got nothing like that. And one more reason for lessening the strength of the spirit – the less of energy, the less of memories. This is also a sign of losing the memories, the attachment to the world.
Second thing – nomenclature. In the drama, the word that was used was kwishin (귀신) that is translated usually as “ghost”. But in the English subs there was a mess. Jihyeon was once “a spirit”, the other time – “a soul”. Both words, although used interchangeably, denote something different. It’s no time and place to delve more into this topic, maybe I will write something on this soon (read: when I have time).


            Back to the drama. Since Jihyeon wasn’t supposed to die (about the schedule later on), and with her body in the coma, she was given the chance to come back to life under one condition. She hysterically wanted to live, so begged for the chance. The condition was seemingly easy, and our pure-minded Jihyeon thought it would be just a piece of cake. Turns out – this was this pebble that causes the avalanche. She was promised to come back to life after gathering 3 tears of pure love. All smiles and happy, she was quickly brought back to reality (or other-reality) by Scheduler, who took her to the wake and showed many different tears. Not all tears are the same. Some people cry because the situation reminds them of their own miserable event, others cry because it’s just a “must” on such occasions, others are even happy but it’s inappropriate to laugh. Tears are just like a mask. Exactly the same as smile, only on the far end of the same spectrum of emotions. She could “borrow” the body of a girl working at the supermarket on the night shift. Song Yikyeong wanted to commit suicide and her attempt caused big havoc on the expressway.
            At this point it is clear one thing – Yikyeong and Jihyeon are connected by this event. But throughout the drama, the hints that there is something more into it, are scattered and ready to collect. Jihyeon enthusiastically starts her journey to collect those 3 tears. And she finds out that it’s a task close to being impossible. She pretends to be her own friend starting a project that may help Jihyeon come out of the coma. Suddenly she faces a new reality – that the friends she thought she had actually don’t like her that much and absolutely can’t relate to her state. “But Jihyeon is not dead yet”, this is their response when she asked them why they didn’t cry.
Meanwhile, Jihyeon (in Yikyeong’s body) is working in Kang’s restaurant. This causes big impact on both Kang and Minho. Kang, a guy who is usually disconnected from problems of other people, somehow is drawn to this girl who behaves like Jihyeon. And his cautious observation starts. Minho, on the other hand, believing that Yikyeong is interested in him, starts acting like he owns her.
            Accidentally Jihyeon discovers the truth – Minho and Injeong are lovers. And in the course of the drama, it is clear they knew each other long before he started to date Jihyeon. But here the best part starts. This dating was in fact part of a scheme targeting Shin family. Both Minho and Injeong planned to ruin the family, using Jihyeon.
The only person she can rely on is Yikyeong, the girl who is living constantly one day over and over again. A day five years ago when her beloved one died.


I don’t want to spoil the fun, because, ultimately, the whole journey is a fun to watch. And I disagree with voices criticizing Jihyeon’s fate shown in the last episode. If you paid any attention, in one of the previous episodes, when Scheduler was talking about his schedule and how it works (it is downloaded to his phone, keke), he said that he will have one last person before he ends his term. His face said that clearly – it was the person he was talking to in this very moment. But I still can’t succumb to the idea of Yikyeong as the Shim family lost daughter. She mentioned her mother left her at the station, but Jihyeon’s mother never mentioned any lost child. So I think it was just a device to make Yikyeong happy (digression: in New Tales of Gisaeng there is also lost child motif. But, contrary to the situation here, the mother is firmly set on finding the daughter. What’s more, not only her, but almost the whole household know about it and do what they can. Maybe it’s just a matter of personality, but not even once in 20 episodes Jihyeon’s older sister was mentioned, and I find it a bit weird. End of digression). Also, I didn’t connect to the “happy 15 minutes”, when loose ends were tied again. But apart from that, I can’t complain.
In acting department – oh well, I could bash this or that but what’s the point? The cast did a fairly good job in portraying the characters, so I could relate or hate, or just smile. Teary-eyed Bae Subin was a bastard, and the character clashed with his looks, but I think that was a good choice. People who look like angels but hiding black hearts are more terrifying than monsters. And Jeong Ilwu and his Scheduler. The only person who, despite repeating like a mantra: “I’m not a human, I don’t care!” showed the full scope of human emotions as the only character from the drama.

So yes, for me this drama was heavy in little details.
Kang’s restaurant nameHeaven – not only because it was on the hill, thus closer to the sky. It was also calm and peaceful. It was indeed like a heaven compared to the room Yikyeong lived in. I think this was on purpose – restaurant on the hill, and her room below the ground level. What is the opposite of heaven? Some theologians gave one good definition of hell. It’s a place/situation without comforting presence of God[2]. Since God may be equal to hope, it’s a place without hope. And this is exactly how and where Yikyeong lived. Deprived of hope, love and future.
The schedule – it means the time of death is set and we can’t do much about it. Many people were complaining about Jihyeon’s death at the end. “She collected 3 tears and still died. What’s the point?” And the point lies exactly in the first sentence. To make your life meaningful. She was scheduled to die on this day. But she was also destined to be the guiding beacon for other people, to be this small pebble in the mountains. She died, true, but her legacy is alive. She taught people how to love, how to rely on each other, how to find the hope on the desert. Jihyeon’s focus was on those 3 tears. To collect those, she did everything she could, she turned few lives upside down. Truthfully, if she lived, I would be more surprised. Compare “two Jihyeons” – one at the beginning begging for another chance to live, and the other – at the end, facing her fate with smile and peace. As sad as it was, I admired how she could do it. She bid farewell to her loved ones, and was gone. The tears she shed in the elevator and Scheduler tears were in fact, as for me, the most moving moment in the whole drama. Not open crying, not heart wrenching eternal goodbye of Yisu and Yikyeong (although yes, I did have knot in my throat), but this silent tears of both of them. The death of a young person may seem to be unjust, cruel or stupid. But when emotions are calmed down, we realize that world didn’t stop, didn’t end. Everyone has one’s own date and what we will do with the time left, is up to us.
The Scheduler – I was wondering about him and his sunbae. He was a person who died and was given a task – to assist those who have to go through the elevator. A heavy task. People are afraid of death, and he is a personification of the comfort. People need it while dying. Be it the ideology, faith, hope or something else, more personal. So seeing someone calm who walks through the “gates of no return” brings some peace and acceptance of one’s fate.
He was a Border Person, as I call it. Neither sacrum, nor profanum. He could move between worlds easily, not belonging to any of them. In religious studies this is usually called “a wandering ghost”, namely the spirit of a person who died sudden, unjust death and seeks to know the reason of his/her death. This may lead to the vengeance, and we know some “vengeful ghost” from all around the world. The writers solved the issue in an exceptional way – by giving the task of finding the tears. So instead of harm, the will of such departed soul is focused on gathering those damn 3 tears! There is a Japanese story about the vengeance of the spirit. One man was about to die from the sword of another. And he cursed this man and pledged he would come back to haunt him. The other man replied: ”Fine, you may haunt me, but to make me believe you will, you have to bite this rock before you.” And he cut his head. All around were mortified when the head of the dead man started to move toward the rock. And finally bit it! Everyone was sure the vengeful ghost will be back, only the man who cut him was calm. No spirit appeared in the mansion. The man explained: ”In the moment of his death, his thoughts were shifted from the vengeance to biting the rock”. This is a very similar situation. Thoughts are shifted to finding those 3 tears.
            His sunbae is another interesting person. A lady, fierce as a winter storm itself. One thing interests me in this. She was his senior, but does it means she was a Scheduler longer than him? Or was she higher in the hierarchy of “Schedulers”? If the first version is right – how long then? And what was the main factor deciding on how long a person may serve as the Scheduler? If the second version is right – does it mean she had her job, let say it, permanently? She said about her memories coming back, meaning she died some time ago, so she couldn’t belong to the “supernatural order”, but was in fact the same being like Yisu. The second version also implies that some people may serve as Schedulers indefinitely, so they can move up in the hierarchy.


            I found the story very refreshing among usual Kdramas that can be put together in one bag with a label “romantic”. Truthfully, this was the least appropriate description for it. Oh well, if we are talking about “romantic” in the classical, European 19th century, emo version, then yes. We had one who died and the other waiting for the “merciful death to take me away and join me with my love”. Yisu ominous words about their separation resonate with suicide condemnation. If anyone read Dante’s Inferno, knows where those who committed suicide ended up. Yisu warned Yikyeong that even if she died, they wouldn’t be together. Instead he left wishing her happiness. And this is one hard accomplishment. While watching this drama I had 3 books in my mind – Macbeth, Inferno, and The Other Wind (by Ursula K. Le Guin).
As for Macbeth, that’s easy – Injeong and Minho. She was like Lady Macbeth, she poisoned him to do all those hideous things they did. But it doesn’t mean he was just a mindless toy. If he said no, nothing would have happen. Instead – they ruined themselves. Dante’s Inferno – because of the suicide condemnation notion. Plus, Jihyeon was kind of Beatrice for Yikyeong. Yikyeong lived for 5 years as some lifeless bag of bones. She was wandering in the darkness, exactly in the hell of her own existence, guilt, grudge and anxiety. Jihyeon showed her the way, gave her hope. And The Other Wind? Because of the unrest of the dead. There is one sentence I even made as a motto for my Master’s thesis: “Maybe it’s not only our desire to live forever that has kept the wound open (…) but the desire of the dead to die”. And this is close to the situation of Yisu – he stayed because he had something to finish. He made amends with Yikyeong and left, this time for good, hoping she would be happy.
            As for me the strongest person in the whole drama was Injeong. She planned all this, she carried the decisions made by Minho, she had her breakdown, but she stubbornly stood by the man who rejected her, knowing he will not have anyone except for her. Minho, serving his 5 years long term in jail, reflected a bit on his own actions, but only after Jihyeon’s death. Sometimes we wish so much for something, but we are actually afraid when it happens. This 5 years long jail sentence is not a coincidence, in my opinion. Yisu served as the Scheduler for 5 years, and this is somehow a juxtaposition of it. They both had to serve their time. The only difference was – the reason. Yisu wanted to meet with the woman he loved. Minho ruined all who loved him and committed a crime.


            To sum up – a very interesting drama, dealing with topics not often explored in Kdramas. Oh yes, some may say: “Lady, in Kdrama there is ALWAYS someone dying!”, and my retort would be: “Oh, rly??” Some melo hysterical genre has the death as the main fundaments for it, but it is a specific kind of dramas. Lots of those I watched allowed for all characters to survive. And even be happy!
Afterlife and balance between making a choice – those are not that common topics. There wasn’t much romance in it, but that wasn’t the main point. True, the Scheduler was walking on a plank between laughter and tragedy, and he balanced well, he was the only person serving as a relief when the atmosphere was getting too heavy. Also, he wasn’t usual, grim, serious Angel of Death. He was 21, and acted as a young man. Only sometimes the fathomless burden was visible through the cracks of his smile.
Drama about letting go. About the meaning of life, love, family. Drama about the meaning of death.

[1] The Wordsworth Encyclopedia of World Religions, 1999, p.756.
[2] Westminster Larger Catechism question 29


Thank you for reading^^